Imagine you need to place a pizza order for a stranger. What would you do? Would you guess what toppings they want based on what you like or what the people around you typically choose?
That’s a dangerous game, especially considering how heated the debate about pineapple’s place in the pizza world can get. The far better strategy would be just to ask the person what they prefer.
It sounds so simple in theory, but you may feel hesitant when it comes to customer interviews. We know it may be new to you. We know you’re unsure what to ask, who to talk to, and how to make sense of what you hear.
But when done well, customer interviews bring you closer to product/market fit and help you make informed decisions. And you don’t need complex and expensive research panels to get the job done.
A customer interview, also called a user interview, discusses current or potential customers about their goals, challenges, or feedback on your product.
Here are some criteria to help you judge if customer interviews could benefit you:
Chances are, at least one of those statements applies to you and your company. That’s because customer interviews aren’t something to reserve for the largest corporations—businesses of all sizes and stages can benefit.
It shows you whether you should prioritize X feature or Y feature, because there’s an insight from a real customer that shows you something is a bigger problem.
-Roy Opata Olende
Now that you’re good and curious about running user interviews for your company, let’s break down each phase of the project.
Preparation is key for customer interviews. Getting organized before the fact helps you make the most of the limited time you have with the customer and repeat the process with multiple customers.
If you want a repeatable customer interview process that helps you prioritize your work, you need to start with a topic in mind.
Setting an objective upfront makes it easier to choose relevant questions, select the right participants, and let customers know why you’re doing this.
Your topics will either be outcome-driven or role-driven. Here’s what we mean.
Outcome-driven goals depend on what decision you want to make with your learnings. Examples include:
Role-driven goals vary between functions and their responsibilities. Here are a few ideas with the type of information each role can garner from interviews:
Once you know what you want to learn, you need to decide who can give you the perspective you need. In general, you want to talk to the people who will use the product or feature you’re researching. Selecting and interviewing participants goes a bit deeper than that, though.
Make sure you understand as much as you can about the type of person you need to interview. Be aware of the difference between early adopters versus laggards. You should also make a hypothesis about their behaviours (how they spend their time, what they do, what they prioritise) and list your key assumptions about the customer and your possible solution.
When you have an idea of who you want to talk to, you need to get them on board with the interview. We have a complete guide to recruiting research participants, but here are a few quick pointers:
The introverts of the world already know the value of planning out what to say before you get on a call. Even the most outgoing researchers benefit from an interview script, however. A defined set of questions makes sure you don’t forget anything and ensures you ask everyone about the same topics.
The core sections of your script should be:
P.S. We have a downloadable customer interview template here.
Your planning is complete, and you’ve made it to interview day. Hooray! Now it’s time to follow your plan and capture responses.
Ideally, conducting user interviews is a two-person job. If you’re busy writing notes as fast as you can, you won’t have time to listen to participants and dig deeper into responses. So, aim to have a moderator and an interviewer.
The role of each includes:
Since the moderator doesn’t have to worry about taking notes, they have more time to listen. It’s best to avoid leading questions or putting answers in people’s mouths. A leading question would sound like “Did you find this feature difficult to use” versus a non-leading question, “What was your experience like using this feature?”
If you want someone to expand on their answer, use laddering. This method of questioning digs into four levels of motivators:
Confused? No worries. Here’s how laddering would play out for an email marketing tool talking to a customer about a new analytics dashboard:
Feature question: What are your first impressions of the analytics dashboard?
Response: It had some interesting information.
Outcome benefit question: How have you used the dashboard?
Response: I tracked the engagement on a new newsletter design.
General benefit question: How did that impact your workflow?
Response: It made it a bit faster to decide whether to keep the design or not.
Emotional benefit question: What does that benefit do for you?
Response: It makes me more confident when I report the decision to my manager.
It’s also best to record an interview, so the moderator and note-taker don’t have to remember and write down every last word. You just might pick up something new when you review the audio! Just be sure to let the participant know you're recording.
After the interview, you can use a tool like Otter, Trint, or Rev to transcribe the entire interview. If you use Great Question to conduct your research, the process is even easier. Any interview you book through Great Question will automatically be recorded and transcribed. After your discussions are over, you can use a search function to find common threads.
The last phase of customer interviews is the reason you started in the first place—find insights that shape the future of your business. Here are our tips for making interview analysis more rewarding.
If you have teammates or co-founders that can review recordings with you, do it. Each person can bring a unique perspective that fuels the discussion about what to do with what you learned in the interview. It’s also worth seeing what points stood out to everyone or surprised them.
You can’t act on everything you hear in customer interviews. At least, you can’t right now. While user research helps you prioritize work, you need to look beyond individual responses. Compare customer perspectives to look for recurring themes, tally topics that come up often, and discuss how they compare to your assumptions.
Your final customer interview step is to map out your next steps. Summarize the key points you found in the previous step and share a report with everyone. Include the types of users you interviewed, what you asked, what you learned, and what the next steps are. You can also share role-specific learnings with individual teams.
If someone on the marketing, support, or sales teams wants to see our research summaries, they have access, and that is so important because so often research happens, but then it gets lost. I’m really lucky to work with people that are so cross-functional. They give me input that I can turn into more powerful research. And then my research becomes accessible and helpful across the company.
Wondering what to ask during a customer interview? We wanted to give you plenty of example questions to kick off your research. Feel free to tailor them to your company and goals.
What is a customer interview?
A customer interview is a discussion with current or potential customers about their goals, challenges, or feedback on your product. You may see the term “user interview” used interchangeably.
When should I use customer interviews?
Customer interviews help companies of all sizes and stages learn about customer goals, challenges, and opinions. Talking to customers helps your company prioritize updates, refine marketing and positioning, and understand customer motivations.
How many customers should I interview?
Ideally, customer research and interviews is an ongoing process. Continuous research keeps you up to date with customer preferences and can influence company decisions.
If you’re conducting a single customer interview study, start with five interviews. At that point, you can look for common patterns that either prove or disprove your hypothesis. I you still have unanswered questions, continue interviewing more people.
How long should a customer interview be?
30-45 minutes is a good baseline for customer interview lengths. Anything shorter than that will be difficult to get deep into topics, but customers may shy away from commitments longer than that. You can always adapt interview lengths to match the depth of your research, though.
What should I prepare for a customer interview?
The three things you need before a customer interview is a research goal or topic, a set of participants, and an interview script.
Having a solid customer interview and research plan in place will take you far, but having customer interview software will make the trip faster. Great Question streamlines research so you can find and use customer insights more often. This research tool helps you:
Want to learn more? See how to do your best research yet with Great Question.